Many of the famous artists that made their way into history books first broke into the the public consciousness when they were featured the Paris Salon, an annual exhibition of the French government’s Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Salon functioned as the official sanction of the art world and could make or break a painter’s career.
The strength of the Salon’s influence is perhaps most evident in the drama that ultimately tore down its authority – the Salon de Refusés of 1863 in which many “refused” artists, among them the radical impressionists like Manet and Whistler, exhibited work that the Academy had sneered at. The Salon eventually splintered and waned in importance, but the concept of the juried show lives on. Each year, the Springville Museum of Art holds a Spring Salon, which is not exclusively Mormon art, but is definitely Utah art, and it is my personal belief that the Spring Salon is where Mormonism’s burgeoning Manets and Davids may well first show up.
I’m going to end the analogy there, though, because I don’t want to speculate about what on earth a Utah Salon de Refusés would look like.
The 85th annual Utah Spring Salon is on display in Springville until July 5th and I hereby exhort you with all the feeling of a tender stranger from the internet to get yourself there and take it in. It’s a wonderful exhibition every year, but this year it’s particularly grand.
There are themes emerging in Mormon art that are diverging widely from anything I think we’ve had before. One of them has a cousin over in Mormon lit and I think, though it’s a bit genre (they used to use that word pejoratively – the Paris art snobs that we’re pretending to be), it’s interesting. Two weeks ago I found myself at the Provo Library listening to a panel of LDS fantasy authors who were speaking as part of the Provo Children’s Book Festival. My friends had gone to hear Brandon Sanderson, but he was accompanied by Jessica Day George, J. Scott Savage, James Dashner, Brandon Mull, Dean Hale, and Shannon Hale. I quickly texted my 12-year-old sister to tell her that I was in the same room as the Fablehaven guy, and it was then that it struck me that, even though Fantasy hasn’t been my genre of choice in my adult years, I was in the middle of a Mormon cultural phenomenon that has leaked out into the national literary market. And at Springville, I realized that it’s leaking into the visual arts as well. There’s not a market in fine art for dragons and sword-bearing maidens, but the fantasy consciousness is very much there. And its king (why didn’t I realize this before?) is James C. Christensen. Now, I don’t want to get too far into this because I have a whole separate essay that wants to be written about James C. Christensen and the marriage of the fantastic and the sacred, but I did notice that he’s developing a school and I met some of his disciples on Saturday.
One way in which Christensen has opened the door for something totally new is by allowing decorative art to be framed in gilt and sold as ridiculously overpriced limited-edition giclées. Until very recently, decorative art was something that you did at homemaking meetings and it usually involved your husband first cutting out a teddy-bear shaped piece of wood on his jigsaw. It’s also evolved through the scrapbooking phenomenon and quite probably BYU’s prestigious graphic design, illustration and animation programs, to create a very hip illustrative aesthetic in casual Mormon culture. Did you notice the title designs in the LDS Pride & Prejudice and the cover art of the Pink Bible? We’ve got this entire, usually female, design culture that likes to eat at trendy frozen yogurt places along the Wasatch front. And now it’s finding its way into our art galleries. Christensen was the first one (and maybe he could do it because he is a man? I didn’t say that. I promise I didn’t vote for the ERA.) to market a frilly, decorative, illustrative style as fine art, and now it’s acceptable. Emily McPhie has a piece in the Salon titled Two Sisters and Melissa K. Peck has one titled Vivian. The two paintings are very different in style – McPhie’s is soft and resembles a Caldecott children’s book while Peck’s consist of bright color fields that would be at home on funky greeting cards or a Threadless.com t-shirt. But they are both reminiscent of Christensen’s women – sleek, high-cheekboned ivory-skinned women wearing fashionable frou frou. And they’re fun.
Another tell-tale sign of Christensen’s influence is this very marketable appeal to fantasy, and it his own special brew of magic and medieval Europe and Catholic kitsch. (Saints & Angels was particularly influential. “We can do that!?”) Christensen himself has a piece in the salon – a fantastical aristocratic family adorned in sumptuous golden robes eating glowing white fruit from the Tree of Life. And others have borrowed his characters – no one in Utah put wings on angels for a good hundred and fifty years until Christensen did. And so now Chris Miles can – his Muse sails blissfully over a landscape foliated by Henri Rousseau, playing a lute. I like her; she’s cute and her face is Dutch and I like the reminder that not all angelic women have high cheekbones and straight hair. (There’s another winged angel in the show – a plaster piece that’s just lovely – but it didn’t make it into the catalog and I’m ashamed to say I left my notebook on the bus coming back from Springville. If anyone knows the artist name on that piece please let me know.)
Oh. Where to go? There are so many pieces at the exhibition here I want to show you, but the bus leaves at 1:34 and there’s just never enough time or space. A couple pieces that deserve their own brief mention before I attack another theme:
Philip Fisher Barlow’s Exchange Students; a title turns a still life into a delightful social commentary.
Vance L. Mellen’s Omphalos; edgy installation art breaks into a Mormon venue beyond the BYU MOA. I’m not sure whether it’s the LCD screen eyeball that creeps me out or the haunting feeling that postmodernism is stalking me.
Bruce H. Smith: The Bride and a Stack of Glittery, Sightless Bachelors Feigning Insight. You thought it was just an interesting still life of a Roman bust. But it’s not. It’s Orson Scott Card’s short story Inventing Lovers on the Phone, some serious oil paint skills and my social life, all rolled into a 25″ by 25″ frame.
When you first enter the museum, you’ll be greeted by Franz M. Johansen’s A Restoration of Spirit, and you’ll feel automatically rewarded for driving all the way down here. Lovely, lovely.
My homeboy Ben Steele is back in the Salon, with just the sort of postmodern pleasantness I hoped he would paint. It’s fun, like his Rembrandt coloring book images are fun, but it’s a little deeper. It’s whimsical, but it also makes you think.
OK, one more theme I want to address and then I want to show you the best painting in the Salon this year and then I promise I’ll let you get back to the rest of your RSS feed. Mormons are again looking at the female nude. With surprisingly heartening results.
We still don’t know what to do with the nude figure in our art. We’re a little prudish, but we’re not really, not doctrinally. We’re not in the Gnostic Gospels camp where the physical body is dirty. But precisely because of that, and because of our profound respect for women as human beings (Wyoming and Utah were letting the sisters vote before anyone else even broached the topic), we are naturally opposed to the lecherous gaze that was part of the good old boys’ club of academic European art. So we’re extra-vigilant. When Trevor Southey invoked Dürer in his portrayal of Adam & Eve, it necessitated a footnote on the SMA website that in the medieval period, nudity was a symbol of innocence and chastity. And we still tug at our neckties and turn away when the subject is broached today, perhaps because of the deep wound that pornography has inflicted on our culture.
But two artists in particular this year open the door again in a very powerful way, and they both do it by highlighting our mother, the first naked woman – Eve.
In the room with the abstract pieces, you’ll find a surprisingly representational painting that was so powerful it took a while for me to take it in. Nuditas, by Patrick Marco Devonas, is subtitled “the Burning of the Daughter of Eve.” The focal point is a nude woman, hands raised in a pose reminiscent of a crucifixion. There are crucifixes and superimposed pictures of Christ flanking her and obscured as watermarks behind her, and from the edges of the frame two Roman soldiers taunt her with puppets and smoking guns. It’s a little bit Dalí, it’s a little bit Hieronymous Bosch, but very original. It hit me solidly and if it’s not a scathing condemnation of pornography I don’t know what is.
The last painting I will mention is the best painting in the Salon, I say with absolutely no authority to say so. Sean Diediker, in The Condition #1, paints Eve, the apple, and the fall, and this, my friends, is what Mormon art has to offer the world. This is Lewis’s Perelandra, except this time informed by the restored gospel.
Our most unique doctrine is our understanding of the fall and what it means. We turned the Christian world upside-down when we asserted that it wasn’t a tragic mistake. (OK, we didn’t say that. Moses and Nephi said that. But we made sure it got translated into Italian.) And this is what we can offer the world with our art – it’s profoundly educational without being didactic, it’s aesthetically astounding without being trendy, and it’s genuinely and uniquely Mormon. And I love it. I’m going to keep my eye on Diediker, because I think there are some amazing things on the way.
Well, thanks for making the trip with me. I promise it will be a lot more fulfilling when you’re there at the SMA in person. If you’re a diaspora Mormon without the wherewithal for trips on a whim to Utah Valley, the catalog is available for sale for $14 and is lovely – very nice printing. I applaud the SMA for keeping the Salon tradition alive and I hope to see it produce wonders in years to come.